Large watering booms move up and down the aisles at North Carolina Farms in a computerized pattern. Visitors and workers alike learn to dodge the spray by listening for the sound, as it changes course without warning. The booms are part of the technological advancements at NC Farms. These improvements have allowed the greenhouse to become successful. So successful, in fact, that they have the privilege of starting to shift their focus from just growing plants to helping grow their customers’ greenhouse businesses.
NC Farms began in 1973 when Mitchell Donahue, a teenager from Charlotte, built a greenhouse in his backyard. This structure, made of scrap wood from the junkyard, was the testing grounds for Mitchell’s fascination with plant propagation. While still working two jobs, he spent his free time in the greenhouse. He was learning how to start with one healthy plant and turn it into many, simply by taking a small cutting and sticking it into soil.
In 1975, Mitchell’s family moved to a larger plot of land in Indian Trail, where Mitchell’s dad deeded him an acre of land to expand his business. There, with his brother Joe, he constructed two second-hand Quonset houses and hired his first employee, a 12-year-old neighbor boy. By December of the same year, Mitchell was marrying that boy’s older sister, Wanda. Together they slowly began to grow the business, as well as their family.
Over the years, Mitchell and Wanda had six children and added a couple more acres to the original plot. They bought out Joe’s portion of the business. The greenhouse became a wholesaler that sold to other greenhouses, rather than the public. The covered square footage of the greenhouse grew from less than 4,000 sq ft. to 150,000 sq ft. And their customer base expanded to all 50 states, Canada, and surrounding islands, such as Bermuda and Puerto Rico.
But this growth came the hard way. Almost all waking hours were spent running the business. Plant sales and shipping occurred during the day, paperwork in the evening, and in the coldest months, Mitchell was up every few hours in the night, loading the hot water boiler with wood, to keep the greenhouses heated. After the big snow of 1988 and hurricane damage from Hugo in 1999, the business was almost completely wiped out. But the Donahues pressed on, working even harder, and reinvesting all profits until North Carolina Farms was back on its feet.
All five surviving children grew up working in the greenhouse and learning the trade, as soon as they could walk. NC Farms was a true family business. Most of the original employees were family members. Now the staff has expanded to 25 full-time crew members and 50 more seasonal employees.
In 2012, Mitchell had a massive stroke, which limited his ability to participate in the day-to-day operations of the greenhouse, everyone in the family took on new responsibilities to ensure that NC Farms would continue. His oldest two sons, Mick and Brad, now manage the business. Wanda still works in the office, as does her sister Phyllis. Mitchell’s brother Joe is the head grower. Karen, the youngest Donahue daughter, is using her marketing degree to take NC Farms to the next level. And Melissa Hines, the eldest daughter, custom grows geranium orders for NC Farms at her family nursery, Hines Farms.
For the first couple of years after Mitchell’s stroke, NC Farms was just trying to maintain stasis. At that time Brad was working his job as manager while also taking on his Dad’s responsibilities until Mick, who was remotely employed, moved back home and joined the team full-time.
But now, five years later, they are once again headed in a forward direction. Mick and Brad realized the hard-won success and experiences of NC Farms allowed them not only to sell plants to other start-up greenhouses but to also supply them with the advice and tools they need to succeed.
NC Farms now sees themselves as a grower of small businesses. While their main income is still from supplying plants, the culture of the NC Farms is changing to include providing knowledge as well. “While we still work with larger customers, we are cultivating relationships with individual small greenhouse owners,” said Brad.
NC Farms is also reaching out to their community. High school Agriculture classes have always purchased plants from NC Farms, but now the greenhouse is being more intentional in reaching out to local Union County Schools. Brad hosted a booth at the North Carolina Future Farmer’s of America convention this past summer. The greenhouse has organized class tours of their operations. And next week they will be providing donated plants to Porter Ridge Elementary as part of the school’s Earth Day programming. Mick is also working with Porter Ridge to teach a seminar to the classes about the greenhouse business.
Mick explained, “‘We grow your business’ is much more than just our tag line. It is the reason we exist. Every time we send plants to other greenhouses and garden centers around the country, we are sending hope. Our customers buy our products in order to feed their families with the profits. When we combine great products with our expertise, we create a system in which everyone benefits.”